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Slow minivan from Mysore

A fifteen-seat mini van drew up on the side of the road where nearly twice the number of people were waiting. I had been assured that taking a mini van would be a quicker way to reach H D Kote. It could also be a short cut to heaven, I thought, with one look at the rickety old van.

I was travelling from Bangalore in South India to H D Kote, a village, which lay five hours south west of Bangalore. The best way to reach H D Kote was to travel to Mysore, a city which was half way along the route and take the connecting bus to H D Kote. At the Mysore bus station, the person at the ticket counter advised me that the bus would take two hours to cover the distance and suggested that I travel by mini van instead, which would take half the time to reach the village.  As I did not wish to delay my arrival at Kote, I decided to take the mini van.

The place where the mini van would pick up passengers was pointed out to me by a passer-by. It was just across the road from the bus station. I joined a group of people who seemed to be waiting for the van. Directing the question to the group in general, I enquired when the van was expected to arrive. “Just arriving” volunteered a young man with a wide happy grin. I was a city dweller and this was my first journey to an Indian village. I was not wise to the true meaning of such pithy phrases. I soon realised that the “just arriving” van was taking its time to arrive. I waited and waited for what seemed an endless period. Growing impatient, I started shifting from one foot to the other, looking at my watch and sighing intermittently. Glancing around at my fellow travellers, I caught their sympathetic looks and grew embarrassed at my restlessness. They seemed to be taking the wait very well. I had noticed earlier that there was no one queuing for the van, – just a gaggle of people gathered haphazardly. Some were standing and some were seated on the ground, forming small groups of acquaintances or friends. Dressed in bright traditional clothes, they looked like a flock of gaily coloured parrots chattering away at each other. They looked like they had all the time in the world. I stood apart, aloof, and feeling a little self conscious.

At last the van arrived, one hour behind schedule, with a driver who looked too young to be driving the vehicle and an even younger assistant who was hanging on to the partially open door of the van. The vehicle was badly in need of paint and it looked like it was ready to fall apart if any one stepped into it. But this did not deter our motley group of travellers who fell into it with a passion as soon as the van came to a halt. As I was standing to the front of the group, I was swept into the van by the crowd and hence managed to find a seat. Some people who were to the back and had no hope of getting into the van first, threw hankies on to the seats from the windows, reserving them. But this was happily disregarded by those who managed to scramble into the van ahead of the others. When the hanky owners finally got in, they saw no sign of their reserved seats and had to spend precious moments searching for their misplaced hankies. This led to an exchange of hot words at the end of which some of those who did not get seats simply sat on the laps of those who had seats. This was accepted calmly by the people whose laps were occupied. Noting this, I hurriedly dumped my travel bag onto my lap and sat there nervously wondering how I should react if someone wanted to grace my lap! Thankfully, people just seemed to ignore me.

All this time, the driver and his assistant stood outside the van chatting lazily, waiting for the occupants to settle down. They were in no great hurry to start the journey. It was a hot day and the heat inside the crowded van was stifling. Yet, the passengers seemed oblivious to the discomfort as they swapped news with each other. People in the front of the van had no difficulty in conversing with those at the back. Raised voices, wild gesticulations, dodging heads with glittering swaying ear rings and the jingle of dozens of bangles added to the kaleidoscopic scene in front of my eyes. I seemed to stand alone removed from it all.

I was used to city travel. As I commuted daily to and fro from work, travelling more often than not with the same group of people, I was used to ignoring my fellow travellers, while they ignored me in turn. We sat in stiff, polite silence reading, dozing or simply gazing into space. The whole point of the exercise was to avoid catching each others’ eyes. We were simply sharing the same physical space for a short period of time, but otherwise, had nothing to do with each other.

But in the van, my neighbour, a handsome woman in her thirties was determined to draw me into a conversation. It did not matter that I was a stranger. Perhaps, it was all the more interesting to discover who I was and hear my stories. She started talking to me, or rather, we played twenty questions. The first several minutes was spent in answering her questions about my marital status, the number of children, my salary, husband’s salary and so on. Considered rude in the most parts of the world, such questions are practically introductory sessions between strangers in these parts. Any offence taken at this would be regarded with astonishment and disbelief. After having confided in the woman, it was open field for me. I proceeded to question her about H D Kote, its surrounding jungles and the tribals residing in them whom I wished to meet.

While we were absorbed in this conversation, there were more additions to the already crowded van. A man with a chicken and a goat got on board. People did not grumble. They just made way for the newcomers by squeezing themselves into every available space in the van. After we jostled a bit for space and were resettled, the driver and his assistant got on to the van and off we went. I had never travelled with a goat before and having it within a few feet of me in the closed confines of the van made me a little nervous. I’m fairly sure that the goat could sense my irrational fear, as it looked at me enquiringly a time or two as if to wonder at my fear and reassure me that it was harmless.

Once outside the city limits the van picked up speed. The country side stretched endlessly on both sides and a cool breeze blew gently into the van as it whizzed along the narrow road. Rattling noisily, the van hurtled down at breakneck speed barely missing trees and swinging past boulders within an inch of them. As I closed my eyes and prayed fervently, my neighbour continued to impart information nonchalantly.

Suddenly with a loud bang, van shuddered to a halt. As the passengers looked at each other, the driver and his assistant hopped out and surveyed the damage. Soon half the passengers crowded round them giving their opinion on how to rectify it. And at least four people got under the van with various parts of their anatomy sticking out while attempting to repair it. The others comfortably sat themselves on the sides of the road and continued their conversation as if there had been no interruption to their journey.

Someone opened a small packet of food and offered it around. Other people followed suit and soon most passengers including the driver and his disciple were nibbling on edibles. After this short break there were fresh attempts to rectify the breakdown. One of them actually being successful, we got on our way. By this time, the van was an hour behind schedule.

But our journey was not destined to be smooth. Half an hour later, the van broke down a second time. And once again everyone was involved in suggesting how best to set it right. Many opinions and trials later, we were finally on our way. And my watch showed we had lost two hours. So much for saving time by taking the mini-van instead of the bus, I thought!

But I had noticed that not once did the passengers complain about the delays. Their calm acceptance of the late arrival of the van, the over-crowding, and subsequent break down amazed me. They did not seem to be affected by things that would normally have me tearing my hair out. In my world that ran by the clock, such inordinate delays would normally result in some undesirable consequences. Time, money, appointments were of utmost importance to me. And here I was sharing confidences with people I barely knew, eating their food, laughing at their jokes and trying not to think of how long it would take us to complete the journey. All the while not knowing then that I was on some sort of a journey where I was experiencing life that moved at another pace, where there was time to relax, where people were more important than time or money, where one went with the flow with a calm assurance that things would turn out for the best in the end. That eventually we would all get there. I was fairly certain that even these simple people had their complexities in their lives and communities. But there was something about them that drew at my heart that made me long for things that I could not put a finger on. While I belonged to another seemingly different place and would be glad to go back to its familiarity and adequate recompense, I knew that this simple experience was a rare glimpse of life to which I would perhaps go back to time and again whenever my spirit flagged or felt weary with its journey.

We finally reached our destination. The van emptied as quickly as it had filled up. Before hurrying away to their homes, some fellow-travellers invited me to their homes for a refreshing drink of sweetened tea or buttermilk. After I assured them that a friend would be meeting me soon and that I would be alright, they drifted away one by one. I waved to the last of them, glanced at my watch and tapped my foot impatiently waiting for my friend to turn up. 

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